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Microsoft Initiatives Target Next Billion Customers

Microsoft Corp. said Thursday it will build on existing efforts to bridge the digital divide worldwide and announced several new ventures, including a $3 software package for governments that subsidize student computers.

The software maker said it will sell a Student Innovation Suite, which includes Windows XP Starter Edition and Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, for $3 to governments that subsidize a certain percentage of the cost of PCs for primary and secondary students for use at home and at school, starting in the second half of the year.

The Redmond-based company also pledged to open 90 new "innovation centers" in countries around the world. Microsoft has already opened 110 of the centers, which offer classes and access to technology for academics, local startup software companies and other groups.

In addition, the company said it designed a Web site to help graduating engineering students in India get additional training and find jobs, a model it may extend in other countries if successful. The site will go online by the end of the year.

Microsoft also announced it forged an alliance with the Asian Development Bank, but the company did not specify its financial commitment.

Orlando Ayala, a senior vice president for Microsoft's emerging segments market development group, said it took 35 years for the company's software to reach a billion people; reaching the next billion isn't just a side philanthropic project for Microsoft.

"Many of these people we think are going to be consumers down the road," Ayala said in an interview.

Ayala would not say how much money Microsoft will spend on the programs announced Thursday.

"We don't want it to be seen as an initiative, 'Oh, these guys are announcing another billion dollars,'" he said. "We're bringing this whole business strategy mainstream for Microsoft."

In Beijing on Thursday, Microsoft Chairman Gates said more opportunities would be created as technology becomes easier and cheaper to use as it advances.

"I'm often asked, is the technology revolution going to reach an end? And the answer is certainly that in the decades ahead, we don't see any limits," Gates said.

Gates cited the growing prevalence of video on the Internet as an example of how quickly and dramatically technology improves.

"Five years ago, we talked about music on the Internet; we talked about photos on the Internet. But video was not a mainstream thing. Today, it's very mainstream. Why? The power of the systems, the power of the software tools, and the use of high speed connections allow video to work very well on every one of these systems," Gates said.

"We see the fact that the power will just get better and better."

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